Toyota recall aftermath: many protagonists fail inspection

Last August, I wrote a blog post that compared the Toyota recall frenzy of 2010 to the Audi 5000 frenzy of 1986.  At that time, there were reports that investigators were having trouble finding any “sudden acceleration” problems tied to the Toyota electronics.

Four months later, I followed up with a post that covered the sensational media reporting of ABC News’ Brian Ross.  The February broadcast — in the thick of the media frenzy — featured dramatic footage of driver tests that pointed to software/electronic problems with Toyota vehicles.  The report leaned heavily on findings of a professor of automotive technology, whose work was commissioned by a paid advocate for trial lawyers (not disclosed in the original ABC News broadcast).  Tsk, tsk.

Earlier this week, federal investigators confirmed that there is no evidence of electronic failures that led to Toyota sudden acceleration incidents.  Thus, the circle is complete – the Toyota 2010 situation is the doppelganger of the Audi 1986 situation.  Both situations point to “pedal misapplication” as a likely cause in most of the reported accidents.  Both situations end with calls to move the brake and accelerator pedals a little further apart to avoid such confusion.

Summarizing this situation now is difficult, but this is a good callout from Jeffrey Liker’s post on Harvard Business Review blog:

So who won in this debacle? Journalists who wrote speculative and poorly researched sensational articles got a lot of internet hits. NHTSA got a lot of attention, a larger budget, and a reputation for toughness. It remains to be seen whether the lawyers suing Toyota will get anything. American drivers got a paranoid auto industry that will recall vehicles at the drop of a hat. There will be some positive safety policies relating to how runaway cars are shut off in an emergency, and we all may get “black boxes” that record our recent driving actions. And Toyota got a crisis that drove it to reflect intensively and to make dramatic changes to improve its responsiveness to customer concerns, so likely will emerge stronger — but lost billions of dollars of value in the process.

Other implications?    

Gerald Baron wrote an excellent blog post on the implications of the recent news and I urge you to check it out.  I agree with Gerald that U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood owes Toyota a massive apology.  I also agree with Gerald’s and others’ views that some media members should apologize for a big role in stoking unsubstantiated fears.

There are a few more things I’d like to point out about this situation.

1.  Check out this excerpt from this week’s report in The New York Times: 

Mr. LaHood and other officials were also quite diplomatic about a likely cause of the unintended accelerations — pushing on the accelerator instead of the brake. On Tuesday department officials called these “pedal misapplications,” and when a reporter asked if the problem was drivers making a mistake, Mr. LaHood shot back from the podium, “Nobody up here has ever insinuated the term that you used, driver error.”

Instead of apologizing to Toyota, LaHood has his priorities clear.  He wants to make sure that “driver error” is not the term to be used on the record.  Instead, the more inanimate “pedal misapplications” is preferred.  In other words, don’t blame the driver, blame the pedal (and, perhaps, the manufacturer of the pedal?).  This is political spin at its darkest, in my view.

2.  Now check this excerpt from the same article:

“N.H.T.S.A., America’s traffic safety organization, was right all along,” Mr. LaHood said. He said the Transportation Department had ordered the search for an electronics problem because in the hearings on Capitol Hill, at which he testified last year, “just about every member of Congress didn’t believe that we had found the problem, which was floor mats and the sticky pedals.”

“As a former member of Congress, I thought we should listen to these members,” said Mr. LaHood, who represented a district in Illinois until President Obama named him transportation secretary. Speaking of his former colleagues, he said, “I hope they get the message today.”

Okay, so NHTSA and LaHood didn’t think there was a problem with the electronics, but LaHood ordered the search anyway because members of Congress wouldn’t agree with the data found through investigations?  The same members of Congress that not long before had propped up GM?  When politics trump the science of the investigative process, I’m not sure any manufacturer has a fighter’s chance in these situations.

3.   This editorial appeared in the same edition of the NYT.  It called for more funding for NHTSA and a tightening of rules.  I’m disappointed that the editorial does not mention that these actions won’t solve anything unless some other problems are also addressed.  In my opinion this would include:

  • Penalties for lawyers who manipulate media hype to build larger class-action cases (or force settlements) based on unsubstantiated causes.  These tricks are nothing short of blackmail.
  • A deliberate regulatory process with enough check-and-balance to ensure that science will prevail over politics.
  • A reconfiguration of the NHTSA database that requires validation of claims made by the public.  As reported elsewhere, the current system is really an honor system of anecdotes about accidents where “anyone can enter anything.”  Unfortunately, media often reports NHTSA database numbers as validated fact.
  • Greater liability for media who trump-up their evidence in order to tell a better story.  As I reported in my December post, Toyota faces lawsuits from owners angry that bad publicity led to value loss on their cars.  I believe there are plenty of media representatives that should shoulder some of that burden they helped create for Toyota.


If you have thoughts on this situation, please share them in the comments below.

Feb. 16 Update:  A few related posts of note over the past few days:

  • Eric Dezenhall’s post in The Daily Beast is noteworthy for exposing some of the “crisis capitalists” and their intertwined relationships.  (Since these are mostly groups that require a successful company in peril from which to feed — like a host body — I think I’d prefer calling them “crisis parasites” but that’s just me.)
  • Gerald Baron follows up from an earlier post linked above to ask “Would major media actually lie just to juice a story?”   I agree with Gerald’s assessment that there are stellar examples of real journalism that may get drowned out by “audience seeking” pandering.
  • Chris Gidez uses the Toyota situation as a catalyst to raise some very good points that outline “when is it the right strategy to fight back in public?”
  • Bob Conrad’s post from earlier today sites this post and several others to raise points on the state of the news media.  For one, I really hope what Bob is describing is more of the media exceptions than the norm.

Mar. 1 Update:  Tony Jacques weighs in on the outcome of the Toyota situation on his blog, managingoutcomes.

Apr. 27, 2012 Update:  Interesting post confirming one of my points above — that plaintiff lawyers have a vested interest in funding very pointed “independent research” that is often used in media reports.

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